Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Multilingual kids despite it all - survival of the fittest

This post is about a few families I have had the chance to observe, where the kids turn out multilingual despite the counter efforts of their parents.

When Milo was born and I started digging into multilingualism, I developed a true passion for the subject. A passion that was primarily alimented by the call of blood, that is by the desire to succeed my child linguistic development. I naively thought that all parents in our situation, that is having to juggle more than one language, would feel the same preoccupation and would feel compelled seeking information on the topic. But along the line I met very relaxed multilingual families who worried more about other aspects of their childrens' life, and lived their multilingualism as a casual expression of their family, like hair color or size, rather than a very specific asset.

One lesson quickly learnt was: not everyone considers multilingualism as an asset, and not everyone is willing to go the extra step to ensure success.

But then I also met a few expat families with obvious integration difficulties, where the mothers were unvoluntarily inhibiting their kids' multilingualism.

Story #1 pertains an American family who's dad is a multilingual originally from a middle-eastern country. When the kids reached age 3 and 5 the dad was expatriated to France for his travel-intensive job. The mother did not speak French at the time and found herself in a new country, with two small children and often alone, as the husbands travelled frequently. The kids were scholarized and underwent a certain degree of culture-shock; but eventually picked up French, while the mother for years kept feeling unhappy and bashing everything French, hanging out almost exclusively with anglophones, creating a piece of America in her household where only US TV, media and food were allowed; the kids were obviously for a long time torn between the curiosity toward the environment and the desire to play with their new French classmates, and their mum's refusal for the new environment. They eventually became perfectly fluent and are today perfectly integrated, although they continue living the American way at home.

Family #2 comes from literally the other side of the planet, let's say Australia. The father speaks also French and has been expatriated in France for a two years period. The mum had a very similar reaction of the previous mum: instead of taking the opportunity to learn another language and discover together with her children another country, she locked up. As a consequence, her first child refused completely to utter a French word. He attended the French public kindergarden, and at his second year his teacher had still not heard his voice. When asked about it (in English) he would say that he simply would not speak French. The smaller child apparently is impermeable to his brother's stuborness and is starting to babble away in French.

Part of me can understand the hardship of these mums had to endure: it's not easy to find yourself in a new place where you do not speak the language, with small children. I lived through that, although before having kids, and I know how depressing feeling isolated can be.
However, as parents I feel we have an obligation to make an effort at some point and start trying to grasp this new environment. If we do not do it, how can we expect the children to adapt, to ease into the world?

So these mums did not choose a family language strategy, refused to embrace te environmental language, kept of bashing the outside French world, were consistent only at keeping a strictly monocultural environment at home, and despite this counter psychological efforts, 3 out of the 4 above mentioned kids turned out perfectly bilingual, in French and English. Which only confirms that the environmental language at some point sneaks in and takes over, whether we like it or not!

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